Thanks to Suzanne McConaghy for her thoughts on our recent Story Sunday event and her tips for reading online.
I was delighted to be asked to submit a thousand words for ‘Story Sunday’ at the Bristol Festival of Literature. I started writing in a flurry of enthusiasm and found I’d produced something fairly bleak – but I only realised this was the case when I heard some of the other pieces. The theme was ‘The Great Escape’ and the list had been well-curated to provide plenty of variety, beginning with Kerry’s terrifying but amusing dystopian piece – which we could all almost believe in – and ending with Mark’s gentle romantic story. There was something for all tastes.
Jonathan took us to a primary school past that was still quite recognisable for some of us, and, while my own story dealt with the sober topic of domestic abuse, this was soon countered by John’s surreal ‘Most Beautiful Thing’ – an inventive way to commit murder if ever there was one. Then we had two excellent stories by Gail and Joy who, while avoiding the obvious in the form of the pandemic, nevertheless dealt with very topical issues: respectively, our dependence on technology and social media, and the wild fires in California.
If you’re intending to perform at an event like this you need to feel comfortable and, inevitably, the secret is good preparation. I hope my experience may give you some idea of what is involved.
Getting Ready for Zoom
Once the stories were accepted, we had a practice session a week before the performance date, testing audio and video. During this, we discussed how people would be introduced and what questions the presenter might ask afterwards. Then, we did a brief run-through, each speaker reading only the first few lines of their story with a chance for the others to provide feedback on the mini performance. The Festival organiser then sent us a link to get into Zoom on the day of the performance, and we met half an hour before the start time. This was good, helping everyone relax and, of course, voice any worries.
Preparing to Read
Apologies for this next part to those who are practised readers. However, there are many people who write fantastic stories but don’t necessarily find performance easy. I am not referring to any of the readers here, all of whom who gave sterling performances, but if you’re thinking of a performance yourself, here are some simple tips:
- Read your story out aloud, slowly, several times in the days before your performance.
- Don’t be afraid of leaving space. It’s quite good for the listener to have time to process.
- If you stumble on a word while practising, replace it with a different one or re-phrase the idea before the event.
- Try to look up at the ‘audience’ from time to time. On Zoom, it’s your fellow performers you’ll be looking at.
- Divide things up. To help when you’re reading, arrange your text in such a way that when you want a substantial pause, you leave a gap and continue the line further down the page. This works even in the middle of a sentence. I always think Stephen Fry manages the pace perfectly but I can’t get near to his level.
What could possibly go wrong?
I had decided to read my story from my tablet. I sent it to myself by email, downloaded it and read it from the tablet a couple of times during the day. No problems. One consideration was lighting, since I remembered from the practice session that overhead lighting caught my glasses and turned them a shiny green – at least, so it appeared to me. This time, I put on subdued, low-level lighting and angled the laptop away from it. It seemed to work.
But nothing is perfect. I was Number three and suddenly, half-way through Number two’s story, I realised I could not call up the text. Why had I not left it up on the screen? Why had I not provided myself with a hard copy?
Fortunately, I was still able to begin on time. My first words probably sounded a bit flat as I, like my main character, tried to calm my thudding heart after the shock I’d received. Once in my stride, however, I enjoyed the reading.
You have to be ready for audience reaction. Only names appear on the screen but there is a chat button at the bottom of the Zoom screen. When you click on it, a list appears and people can leave their comments and questions. This feedback is useful. I had been asking myself if there was sufficient build-up of tension in my story and it was reassuring to learn that I seemed to have achieved my aim. Experience of tuning in to various Zoom festival sessions over the last few months has shown that people are rarely negative.
How can I do better? What did I learn?
- Preparation is everything.
- Always, always, always have a paper back-up.
- We were lucky that our two presenters, Ali Bacon and Heather Child, were relaxed and very professional. I think this aspect has huge impact on the audience and almost as much care needs to go into choosing them as into selecting the performers.
- It gives an amazing boost to the reader to have such a large audience – which would probably have been too big for the venue in which the event has previously been held.
- Listen to a couple of well-narrated audio books and analyse the delivery. What are they doing that means you are gripped by the story? Copy the techniques you enjoy.
If you get the opportunity to do something like this, it is definitely worth the time and effort. You are amply repaid by the connection with other performers and the pleasant feeling of contributing.